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If you were to look back at the past couple generations of consoles through today’s, one could argue that their defining traits were in their control schemes as much as their graphical prowess. From the incorporation of dual thumb sticks to motion controls and gesture-based touch-screens, each new means of interaction meant new genres and/or old ones reimagined. As powerful as the current console generation is already proving to be, there’s no denying that it brings with it another new input: the second screen.
Be it our smartphones, tablets, or other proprietary devices, the second screen is undergoing a change as we figure out where it belongs, which genres it benefits most, and what new ideas can be explored with it. Newly formed studio Prismatic Games has a stake in answering this question, and its first attempt comes as a real-time strategy game for the Nintendo Wii U known as Hex Heroes. With the touch-screen enabled controller in hand, one player takes to managing resources and overseeing the battlefield while friends in the same room head to the front lines — turning an otherwise myriad of tasks for one person into focused roles for individual players.
By splitting up the traditional RTS formula across a team of local friends, Hex Heroes is at once drawing on the social dynamics and thrills of a LAN party while making the experience more accessible to all kinds of gamers and more appropriate for the console format itself. What makes the stakes even higher for Prismatic Games is that the game is being crowdfunded through Kickstarter, with less than a quarter of its goal still to be met within in the next 50 hours. As the campaign enters its final stretch, Hex Heroes producer Chris Jennewein and I got to talking about what players should expect in the game, the goals of the project, and how focusing on a Wii U release and going through the Kickstarter format benefit it.
Andrew Kuhar: Hex Heroes will be available on PC, but the optimal experience looks to be exclusive to the Wii U. What does the Wii U’s control scheme afford the game, and what else besides that drew you to the console?
Chris Jennewein: Although asymmetric gameplay is possible on PC, the Wii U is better suited to provide it as a local experience and, being a console, in your living room. We enjoy couch co-op games, and we just don’t think there are enough.
Nintendo games in general have a certain feeling about them that distance themselves from games you’ll find on other consoles. Even if we personally owned an Xbox or PlayStation, our Nintendo library would be much larger, so we think we understand what Wii U owners are looking for because we’re looking for the same thing.
We’re also PC gamers, but there is such a variety of PC gamers that we think Hex Heroes will appeal to them in many different ways.
Kuhar: Game designers have historically had an uphill battle bringing the RTS genre to consoles. In what ways does Hex Heroes offer something different from what we’ve seen before, and how will it handle some of the challenges that the genre has faced in past?
Jennewein: RTS games are often considered hardcore and have a steep learning curve. Hex Heroes will lower the learning curve but still contain hardcore elements that RTS players are familiar with.
The obvious challenge of an RTS game on a console is the control scheme. The Wii U GamePad with its touch screen can simulate many computer-mouse actions. Hovering on an object is one feature that could get lost, but we’ll find ways to compensate. Take Age of Empires, for example. If you go to buy a building, hovering would allow you to see where you can place the building — it appears green if it can be placed and red if it cannot. But in Hex Heroes, we make up for hover with our hex map — buildings can only be placed on cleared hex tiles. When you tap a tile, the building will be placed, and you confirm if that’s where you want to place the building. If the tile is not cleared, the building will not show up, so you wouldn’t be given the option to confirm its placement.
Kuhar: How has splitting up fundamental RTS roles — the commander and the soldier — across a team changed your approach versus if you were building a symmetrical/single-player RTS?
Jennewein: It comes down to balancing the roles. We don’t want to lose that strategy element that comes from the commander role, so we’ll be delegating a lot of the numerical data, like health and resource count, only to the GamePad. The TV players will have subtle visual clues, but for the most part, there won’t be many UI elements on the TV. So then it’s really imperative that the GamePad pay attention to whose health is low or if they have an abundance of wood.
Kuhar: RTS games are of course well known for their multiplayer modes, but Hex Heroes’ take on it feels a little more current generation: It’s asymmetrical. Could you talk more about that and the kind of experience you want players to have?
Jennewein: Hex Heroes won’t be like some RTS games where the best players are measured by clicks per second. We really believe that anyone can have fun playing Hex Heroes because there are many roles to fill. We hope that players will take the time to try out different combinations to find the play style they like best. And when they find it, we want them to feel comfortable in their role and a part of their team.
Kuhar: How much range can a team have in terms of its size and class chemistry? Will the gameplay be forgiving enough to accommodate different combinations, especially in light of the cooperative play being asymmetrical?
Jennewein: Allowing the TV players to each choose two classes to switch between means that no player will be stranded without options. A full team can potentially play as all eight classes, but that won’t necessarily be the best combination. We expect certain classes will be suited for specific tasks, but we won’t underestimate players’ abilities to master their favorite classes.
If there is an experienced player wielding the GamePad, they’ll learn soon enough what information they’ll need to be giving to the players when they ask, “How much health do I have left?” or “Where do I go?”. They’ll also get the chance to experiment if they want to construct buildings or power up the players.
Kuhar: Hex Heroes is described as a party game. How will that inform the pace and flow of each battle/gameplay experience? Could you give an example of a compelling situation you’d expect to find players in?
Jennewein: Cooperation is key in Hex Heroes, and the party element is going to make the game very dynamic. The flow and pace of each experience is highly dependent on players involved, and since we’re making the game as accessible as possible, the possibilities are endless.
An example: Your father has the GamePad, and you and your brother and sister have the TV. Maybe your father grew up with old-school RTS games and is really skilled at micromanagement, but your little brother isn’t as seasoned in video games. Dad can spend more time with his youngest, guiding and directing him while occasionally keeping an eye on the rest of the team. The entire dynamic is affected thusly by skill.
Here’s another: You and your friends are all skilled gamers. You take to setting leaderboard records and decide to pick lair mode as the challenge of the day. You all set out, knowing exactly how to tackle the situation, and you keep in constant communication. The GamePad player knows when and how to spend resources to shave off crucial seconds, and the TV players know when to go in guns blazing and how to keep the team informed.
Kuhar: What steps are you taking with Hex Heroes to ensure fun for more casual players? Does that change the management systems RTS games are defined by?
Jennewein: If your little sister has been bugging you to let her play, set her up with a harvesting class and let her go to town on chopping those trees. Or have your mom explore the land as a scout and avoid the enemies. The casual player has a role in Hex Heroes that’s beyond just the GamePad, and we’ll be adding elements that keep it fun. Not all role-playing game players consider grinding to be a chore if they can see the effects of their work.
Kuhar: What other modes and options for play will players find in Hex Heroes?
Jennewein: Hex Heroes is starting with horde mode and lair mode, both can be played solo or multiplayer. As we reach our stretch goals, we’ll be adding more modes with specific objectives.
We don’t want anyone to miss out on the fun of Hex Heroes, so we’re including a single-player online mode with our initial goal. So even if you don’t have friends to come visit, you can hop online and play against a fellow hero.
Kuhar: Banjo-Kazooie and GoldenEye were two hallmarks of my video gaming experiences as a child, and their soundtracks are such a big part of those memories. How did Grant Kirkhope get involved with Hex Heroes, and what does he bring to it?
Jennewein: It wasn’t until we realized that through some channels we could contact Grant Kirkhope. As soon as Mario Castañeda [the co-founder and creative lead of Prismatic Games] found out that was a possibility, he jumped on working the connections he had to reach him. After a couple months of back-and-forth emails, Mario finally met Grant in person at the Game Developers Conference, and the two hit it off pretty well. Grant’s a very down-to-earth guy and super busy, too. We’re ecstatic to have him aboard the project because of the experience he brings. It speaks to how committed we are to developing a high-quality game.
Kuhar: How has Kickstarter influenced the project thus far, and how do you think it will affect it going forward if the game reaches its funding goal?
Jennewein: Our Kickstarter backers proved what we already suspected — there are Wii U owners who want more games that take advantage of the GamePad. Our backers helped narrow down the last four playable classes from a list of 12 we devised. One of the classes was actually a backer suggestion, so they’ve already influenced some of the mechanics of the game. With the Kickstarter rewards, we’re giving backers the chance to add sounds to the game, become an NPC, design a costume for a class, and give us their ideas on game mechanics and monsters.
A big thanks to Chris Jennewein for taking the time out of a very busy Kickstarter campaign schedule to answer these questions. Full disclosure: Chris and I were both former classmates and game design colleagues years back. Knowing him and most of the team he’s working with, I can say from personal experience that it’s in the good hands of very passionate gamers.